Far away from city lights, blackness easily moves across the sky as the sun sets over the plains of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota.
But across this wide expanse, a hazy deep orange pulsation is emerging and lighting up the land. It’s the illumination of natural gas flares from the thousands of wells that are springing up across this part of the country.
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The western half of North Dakota, as well as parts of Montana and Canada’s Saskatchewan province, all sit atop the Bakken Shale Formationan underground rock formation ripe with oil and natural gas.
This is what is driving North Dakota’s oil boom and positioning it to become the nation’s second leading oil producer, trailing only Texas.
The Bakken is estimated to have 3.65 billion barrels of oil and 148 million barrels of natural gas liquidsand some think even more than that lies below. As the conflict in Libya deepens and unrest spreads to Gulf nations, domestic sources of energy like the Bakken would seem an oasis for the US.
Issues of trust
But the state’s oil and natural gas industry is not just a part of the idea of relying less on foreign oil; it has created a land of opportunity, drawing people from deficit-ridden and jobless states and replenishing the local communities and businesses.
While the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes of Fort Berthold have welcomed the new prosperity, the boom has raised a debate not uncommon to communities caught in a resource rush. Will the oil frenzy will be a bane or a boon to them and future generations? It’s also presented challenges unique to tribes in the US.
Right now, tribal chairman Tex Hall sees it as a gift, but views it with cautious optimism.
“It’s in the spirit of our ancestors, they left us this land and these beautiful minerals that were in the middle of this oil plain,” he says. “The oil and gas on Fort Berthold, it’s a blessing and it’s a curse. If we don’t do it right and we let the oil run over us… it’ll be a curse.”
The reservation’s roads are old and narrow and definitely not made to withstand the constant back and forth of 2500-plus large oil tankers and trucks needed to ferry the day’s yield.
The profits of the boom haven’t been able to keep up with the traffic however, which is why the tribes want to renegotiate their tax agreement with the state.
The agreement has seen North Dakota receive over $43 million in taxes in the past three years from the reservation’s oil and natural gaswhich is in addition to profits from oil and gas off the reservation. The tribes have received only $19 million.
Not blind to the budget war in Washington, chairman Hall knows that renegotiating the agreement in the tribes’ favour is one of the only ways to ensure the reservation’s infrastructure can keep pace with the drilling and development.
And it’s not the only fight the tribes have to wage. After sparring with the state government comes the next frontFederal Indian Law.
The US government manages nearly 23 million hectares owned by tribes or individual Native Americans in trustmeaning the government is responsible for protecting and managing the income and royalties made from activities such as grazing, timber, oil and gas on that land for the owner.
Dating back to a 19th century law, the relationship also makes it necessary for the land owner to have federal approval to sell or lease their own property. It has been the source of problems for many tribes across the country, Fort Berthold’s residents being no exception.
“Our lands are held in trust. If there’s oil development going on, they have a duty to count the royalties and to pay out in a timely manner. Six months, one year, two years are not a timely manner,” Hall says.
“We have elders who have been waiting for this wonderful blessed opportunity and people, not even eldersyounger people dying before they get a chance to help themselves or their family because some bureaucrat is sitting on their royalty check somewhere and not processing it?”
Following pressure from North Dakota senator Byron Dorgan, now retired, the department of the interior cleared a backlog last fall of about $5 million dollars in delayed royalties to the tribes. Some of the payments were delayed for more than a year.
Costs to the land
But for others, the problems run deeper than money and beyond the headaches of government bureaucracy.
Walking across a hill that overlooks Fort Berthold’s Lake Sakakawea, Tribe member Kandi Mossett wonders if the environmental price of extracting oil and gas is too high.
“My main concern is with the water and the amount of water that is being used for the hydraulic fracturing process,” says Mossett, who works with the Indigenous Environmental Network. “The problem is that this is our drinking water, and there are already stories in Killdeer about water and drinking wells being contaminated.”
The concern that many have with hydraulic fracturing, which is the main method of drilling and extraction for the area, is the proximity to underground sources of drinking water.
In order to extract the oil and natural gas in underground formations like the Bakken, a combination of water, chemicals and sand is blasted into the rock to allow the oil or natural gas to escape.
But due to a provision in the US Energy Policy Act of 2005, chemicals and fluids used in hydraulic fracturing are exempt from regulations of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
That provision is known as the “Halliburton loophole”, due to the fact that oil giant Halliburton, one of the largest providers of hydraulic fracturing services, was one of the main companies lobbying for exemption.
The provision did keep diesel fuel under EPA regulations when used in hydraulic fracturing, but even that seems to have slipped through the cracks.
A recent investigation by Democrats on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce found that oil and gas companies injected over 32 million gallons of diesel fuel into wells in 19 states between 2005 and 2009over 3 million of those gallons were in North Dakota. The investigation also found that no companies sought or applied for permits for the diesel fuel.
“Fracking”, as it is often called, is not just a problem for communities in North Dakota, but across the country, where there are other large shale formations, particularly in New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
“Are we going to be able to drink our water in 50 years? Are we going to be able to swim in our water?” asks RJ Smith, a young Hidatsa man who lives in the town of Twin Buttes.
“There are a lot of us that believe in renewable energy, believe in actually watching out for our environment. There can be a happy medium between the oil companies and the environmentas long as they meet the regulations, as long as they are regulated and things are watched out for. There is no reason why they can’t leave the land the way they got it.”
Democrats are pursuing legislation that would reverse the 2005 exemption given to “fracking”. And the EPA is currently conducting a study of the possible risks from hydraulic fracturing to drinking water and groundwater, but it will not be made public until 2012.
By the end of this year alone, Fort Berthold expects to have tripled the number of wells on the reservation.
The path to self-sufficiency?
Mossett believes the environmental costs of the drilling are not worth economic benefits. At the same time, she is not naive to the necessity of financial security and the simultaneous challenge that poses to changing people’s minds about the risks of the boom.
“My family, a lot of them work in the oil industry,” she says. “My brother works for the companies, and he says he wishes he didn’t have to, but he has to put food on the table. He’s got to pay the bills.”
“It’s really hard because I don’t want my friends to not have a job and not to make money, but I don’t want people to suffer from the consequences.”
Hall says he knows the consequences of insufficient environmental regulation, but that the tribal council is being vigilant. For him, the consequence that looms darkest is not pursuing the stability provided by the profits of the oil and natural gas. It’s a concern firmly rooted in the tribes’ history.
In the late 1940s, the US government built a dam on the reservation, which led to the displacement and relocation of more than 900 tribe families. The Garrison Dam also flooded over 61,000 hectares of Fort Berthold’s land, which comprised over 90% of the tribes’ prime agricultural land.
“Before the 1948 Garrison Dam, we were a totally self-sufficient economy, and they took it away from us,” Hall says, gesturing to a black and white photo taken the day the agreement was signed for the Dam. The tribes’ chairman at the time, George Gillette, is seen holding his face in his hand, weeping.
“We’re in charge now and we have a duty and a responsibility to learn from the past, to see what happened in 1948 when they almost wiped us out. We have to learn from all of those parts of history and say, we should develop ourselves and do it in a way that’s not only good for our people but for several generations. And that means reclaiming, and it doesn’t mean reclaiming with wheat or oats.”
Looking to the past is what drives Mossett’s view of what lies ahead as well.
“I’ve thought about our land and our future and why we are doing this. We’re supposed to be native people, we’re supposed to be stewards of the land,” Mossett says. “We have our chiefs on the wall at the tribal building and I’m wondering what they’re thinking, about what they would have thought if they saw this happen. They fought and died so that we could keep our lands, only to have them destroyed now?”
This is the struggle of finding a balance in the way the tribes develop their economy, weighing livelihoods against the potential toll on the land while history leaps between the two.
As rigs and wells spread across the plains, the tribes of Fort Berthold are left to wonder what they will leave for the next generation when the sun rises.